“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you.” -- Michael Sitrick, Founder and Chairman of Sitrick And Company

Numerous media reports have stated that, in addition to sickness and death, the Coronavirus pandemic could bring the economy to a standstill. Already, we are seeing waves of layoffs and business closures. Many experts predict it is only going to get worse. This type of crisis is unprecedented.

No one, to our knowledge, has ever managed a crisis of this type. But our firm and its partners have, over the past 31 years represented clients in a wide spectrum of less deadly crises and sensitive situations. And while our prior work does not compare in scope and scale to the current situation, there are some common threads from a communications standpoint.

We have found that with few exceptions, the best crisis communications strategies include taking control of the narrative. During a crisis, the initial communication can and often does set the tone for what follows. As our Founder and Chairman has said in both of his books, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you.” But you can’t tell your story until you know the facts. The following steps outline a process that could help.

Getting Ready to Respond to a Crisis

Identifying the facts, issues and risks as quickly as possible is critical to setting a path forward in a crisis. Don’t speculate or guess what happened. Conveying incorrect information can create additional problems and potentially prolong a crisis. Ask tough questions, research what happened and, if possible, identify what is going to happen moving forward.

If the necessary information is not yet available when an issue arises and questions abound, it is almost always better to say something instead of nothing. A placeholder statement, such as “We are investigating the situation to determine the facts and can’t comment beyond that at this time,” is usually better than saying “no comment” or not responding at all. The media abhors a vacuum and will often find someone to give them a statement to fill it. And, more often than not, that person will provide information or conjecture that could be unhelpful or have no basis in fact.

Get input from legal counsel and other highly placed insiders who can provide answers, perspectives and experiences. In most cases, it is critical that whatever information is disseminated is reviewed and cleared by the company’s legal counsel. Crises almost always have litigation risk. While many PR people flinch at having to go through attorneys, it is imperative they be involved and sign-off on what goes out.

Telling Your Story

In most crisis events it is important to communicate with a variety of stakeholders, including the news media. Information can be disseminated through various channels, including press releases, letters, emails, websites, social media, meetings and conference calls. Each communication should contain essentially the same  messaging but be tailored to each specific audience and their concerns or needs.

Be consistent and honest. You don’t want to send a communication to one group of stakeholders saying everything is fine and then see The Wall Street Journal write the next day that you are going out of business. Who do you think your employees, lenders, customers and bankers are going to believe?

Managing the flow of news is also critical to successfully manage a crisis. There are numerous ways to get your story out: for example, you can provide one media outlet with an “exclusive,” host a press conference or issue a press release through a respected newswire service such as Business Wire. Or you can use a combination or variance of the foregoing.

Press releases should be factual and clear. When possible, they should also offer solutions and highlight what is going to address the crisis and make improvements moving forward. Our philosophy is to write press releases like they are news stories and include the “Who, What, Why, Where, When and How,” among other things. They should not include marketing or blatant PR spin, which reporters tend to disregard. Writing a press release like a news story can also be helpful when online aggregators repost the press release in its entirety. Also take into consideration Search Engine Optimization and Search Ranking, such as listing a company name at the beginning of the headline, and in the first few paragraphs of the release, which will help optimize how the release ranks in online search.

Holding a press conference might seem like a good strategy because it is a good way to gather a large group of reporters in one place at one time. But in making that decision, take into consideration that reporters who attend press conferences expect to get news beyond “No comment” or “We are investigating the situation.” Reporters expect to be able to ask questions.

We rarely hold press conferences. Our experience is both the reporters and our clients get a better story if you sit with them one-on one. Plus, press conferences are often hard to control and can sometimes veer in undesirable directions.

The news media of course isn’t the only audience during a crisis. It also important to communicate directly with stakeholders, such as employees, customers and vendors. Stakeholder communications, which can be in the form of email, letters, telephone calls, town hall meetings, conference calls, websites and social media, should be consistent with press releases and other news media communications, and can be modified to address concerns for different stakeholders.

Finally, credibility is key. Take stock, be honest, say what you can when you are ready and convey the message that the situation is being taken seriously and that answers will be forthcoming. Remember the words of the great John Wooden, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Sitrick And Company has more than 31 years of experience representing clients in crises and sensitive situations and has worked on some of the most high-profile and sensitive cases imaginable. www.sitrick.com.

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